Cuddy by Benjamin Myers review – a polyphonic anthem to the northeast | Fiction
Born in the 7th century, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is the unofficial patron saint of the north, where he is still known as Cuddy. He began his life as a shepherd boy and ended it as a famous religious hermit, holed up on a rocky island off the coast of Northumbria. When the Viking raiders arrived, Cuthbert’s body was taken to the continent by a band of loyal monks, generations of whom walked with him as battles raged on until a sign from God (or simple fatigue) tells them to stop at the top of a hill. There, the settlement that would become Durham was born, followed by the imposing Norman cathedral which houses its sanctuary.
In the hands of local novelist Benjamin Myers, the afterlife of St Cuthbert’s legend – and indeed his mortal remains, which for centuries are said to have remained untouched – forms the backbone of a towering multi-volume novel. . It makes room for poetry and countless quotations from various sources, as well as prose that adopts the viewpoints of stonemasons and brewers, cooks and scholars, creating a dynamic alternative history of the region.
At the start is Ediva, a vision-prone orphan who travels with the coffin of Cuddy and her followers in the year 995. Several hundred years later, another section imagines the stories that could have shaped the very fabric of Cathedral. A long pastiche by MR James proves less convincing, lacking the antiquarian’s chilling brevity when recounting the descent into madness of a Victorian don summoned to witness the exhumation of the saint’s remains.
Cuddy ends in the 21st century ravaged by class and austerity with Michael, a 19-year-old laborer, who joins a crew repairing a cathedral railing while caring for his terminally ill mother. As Michael realizes, he too is part of a never-ending story, “one more link in a chain of people…a continuum.” Throughout, this interconnectedness is emphasized by warm patterns in the form of apples and stews, and the unsettling gaze of a pair of owl-like eyes.
Cuddy, Myers’ eighth novel, is a polyphonic hymn to a very specific landscape and its inhabitants. At the same time, it deepens his position as a gripping chronicler of a larger and more mysterious seam of ancient folklore that unites the history of these islands in a way that is rarely taught.